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Making it work

Markets | December 1, 2014 | By:

Easy money, advanced fabrics developments, marine style, equipment training and more.

Easy money…

Tuesday morning’s Awning Symposium opened with a panel discussion: “Easy money from frequently neglected areas.” Bruce Dickinson from Rainier Industries, Mike Falahee from Marygrove Awnings, Ohio Awning’s Andy Morse, IFM, and Atlantic Awning’s Cheryl Yennaco shared their ideas on getting more business from customers you already have—the ones you don’t have to go out and find.

Referrals. How do you know if your customers are happy? At Marygrove Awnings, Falahee notes, “all customers should be satisfied customers—not just existing customers.” His team videotapes each job, and support staff call each customer after installation. Everyone is paid on customer ratings (including the clerical staff), and everyone is expected to go above and beyond what the customer expects. “If a customer is dissatisfied, for whatever reason,” Falahee adds, even if the problem is nothing that Marygrove caused or could have anticipated, “we do whatever it takes to make them happy. Fast. And then we call them again.”

Every happy customer should be asked for referrals. At Marygrove Awnings, customers that do referrals are also given a gift, such as a barbeque tool set, or even a check for $50. The cost per lead is greatly reduced when you ask your customers to help.

Online reviews. The importance of using social media creatively was emphasized strongly. At Rainier, says Dickinson, the company maintains an extensive database and does lots of “electronic nurturing” of customers, sending out success stories, for example, and making a version of their communications for smartphones. When customers post good reviews online, this is a very underutilized opportunity to thank them, says Cheryl Yennaco, perhaps with deals and discounts; or even, as Andy Morse suggests, by taking scrap fabric from their job and making a bag out of it (with the company’s name on a label sewn inside) and giving it to them with a nice bottle of wine. They may take that bottle of wine in the bag to a friend’s for dinner—another kind of referral.

A negative review online is the signal to pounce, says Falahee: you respond, you apologize, and you fix it. It’s another opportunity for good publicity, if you act fast. “You really can’t have a ‘B’ game,” he adds. “Everybody has to have their ‘A’ game going—things work much faster now.”

Then what? Offer seasonal take-down and storage, for example. Dickinson suggests offering complementary products such as banners, flags, railings or signage; Rainier doesn’t offer cleaning any more (contracted out), but does offer design services. Morse adds his own list: upselling with lights, pillows in matching or coordinating fabrics, roll-down motorized solar screens, fans, heaters, etc., all especially attractive to commercial customers.

The importance of creative marketing to distinguish your company from the competition can’t be overemphasized, panelists agreed, whether it’s a professional certification such as Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC), or offering special design and graphic services, and making sure that it’s craftsmanship, quality, credibility and service that you’re selling on—not price. Falahee noted an especially successful marketing program he used: “Cash for Clunkers” postcards, offering to “buy” old worn-out awnings for $500 (essentially, a $500 discount on a new awning). He also showed ads he’d made with his irrepressible young granddaughter, a tactic he says caused their sales of retractable awnings to increase by $1 million. Open houses for customers, networking with builders, marketing to contractors and architects using PAMA’s presentations: keep the conversations going and
the customers coming back.

Developments in advanced fabrics

“Current Research + Future Innovation: Advanced Fabric Developments in Academia, Research Centres + Industry” brought together a group of pioneers: Molly McMahon with the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation; associate professor Marc Swackhamer, Architecture Department, University of Minnesota, associate professor Dr. Lucy Dunne, director of the Wearable Technology Lab, University of Minnesota; and Dr. Julianna Abel, a research associate with the Materials Research Department, University of Michigan. The session was jointly organized and chaired by Professor Marie O’Mahony with Toronto’s OCAD University and Bruce Wright, University of Minnesota. 

Molly McMahon discussed the role of design in health care, which has had a bias toward sustaining innovation, not disruptive. Human-centered design is changing that—merging fit, form and function. The Center for Innovation is working with academia and industry to develop body-worn technologies to help monitor medical conditions as well as athletic performance, with employees and patients helping to drive innovation.

Dr. Dunne also focused on developments in wearable technology, not only finding ways to incorporate electronics into fabrics but making this clothing not only functional and comfortable but stylish. The goal is mass-produced smart clothing; it’s on the way, but fashion designers, textile manufacturers and electronics engineers must collaborate to overcome production roadblocks.

Marc Swackhamer looked at the new relationship between architecture and nature through the use of technology, describing the role of current technology as “hypernatural”: working with, rather than against, natural forces and processes. The conviction that nature holds the keys to the advancement of technology and design is now a primary motivator. The presentation was based on Swackhamer’s forthcoming book “Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature,” to be published in 2015.

Dr. Abel discussed “active textiles”—smart material-based textile actuators, sensors and energy harvesters that have the potential to meet emerging needs for applications such as morphing aircraft, deployable space structures, and medical and rehabilitation devices. She demonstrated the design of active knits, which can create complex, three-dimensional distributed actuation motions, including contraction, scrolling, coiling, arching and accordioning in response to temperature changes. Systems and structures that can change in response to outside conditions are just beginning to have an impact on industry and architecture.

Marine style

Marine fabricators enjoyed a day-long series of seminars on track-to-track enclosures, frame fittings, fastener applications and the latest in needles and sewing machine technology, as well as a tour of one of the region’s busiest canvas shops, Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn., run by Faith Roberts, MFC, IFM. Roberts demonstrated her collection of working vintage sewing machines—all of which serve specific needs.

Steve Szenay, MFC, of Serge Ferrari Group’s marine division, and first vice chairman of the Marine Fabricators Association, offered “Seven Secrets” to installing the perfect track, including choosing the correct tracking, fasteners and tapes, patterning and the right tools, all aiming at meeting his first “secret”: starting with the end in mind. Szenay recently released his second book, after which his session was titled.

Don Racine, who operates Racine Design with his wife Carol in Jacksonville, Fla., followed with a session on boat tops, discussing unique frame fittings and new fasteners and applications. Groz-Beckert’s Ron Russell explained the many different types of needles available and their unique uses. Visitors also heard from MFA members Dave Ruzika of North Country Canvas (Crystal, Minn.) and Greg Smith of Afton (Minn.) Marina and Yacht Club.

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